Family-friendly workplaces

In today’s tight labour market, work-life strategies are no longer just good-to-have, but an important edge for companies to recruit and retain talent. HRM learns how flexi-work arrangements can help improve both employee satisfaction and productivity

Family-friendly workplace policies are increasingly becoming commonplace. Even US President Barack Obama recently called for paid parental leave and other family-friendly policies during the first White House Summit on Working Families last year.

According to The Wall Street Journal, he told the audience of C-suite executives, labour leaders, academics and working parents, “there is only one developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave; and that is us.

“(That) is not the list you want to be on by your lonesome,” he added.

With a tighter labour market, companies often have to overcome the challenges of talent acquisition, development and retention on their own. “Many workplaces adopt family-friendly practices such as contract hiring and flexible work arrangements,” says Rebecca Teo, Director – HR, NTUC FairPrice.

“It is crucial that efforts are made to help our employees manage work responsibilities alongside personal and family needs,” she says. “The value of a cohesive family unit cannot be overstated and a work environment that promotes a healthy balance not only brings the best out in its staff but also creates a strong affiliation to the organisation, thus creating a workplace where staff wants to remain and grow over the long run.”

One company that’s been championing family-friendly policies in Singapore for many years is IBM. The computer hardware company has been awarded the Work-Life Excellence Award over three consecutive awards periods and was most recently recognised for its “sustained” efforts in this space by the Tripartite Committee on Work-Life Strategy.

“At IBM Singapore, we regard our employees as our greatest assets as we believe that a company is only as good as its people,” says Lim Ying Chia, Country HR Director, IBM Singapore. “We see ourselves as an ‘Innovator’s Innovator’; always reinventing ourselves and studying how, where, and when employees work.”

Family-friendly initiatives

As a leader in innovation, IBM prides itself on using technology to meet employees’ work-life needs. For example, tools such as IBM Lotus Connections and Sametime are used for live file-sharing while IBM SmartCloud meeting software is used for web conferencing.

For employees who are constantly on the go, technology solutions such as Lotus Traveller, Sametime Connect Messaging, and Expertise Locator help IBMers stay connected to the business through their mobile devices.

“In addition to technology, we make it a point to solicit the views of our employees through surveys such as the IBM Global Work-Life Survey and the IBM Dependent Care Survey,” says Lim. “The insights gleaned from such surveys help us to shape existing Work-Life strategies and programmes, as well as develop and implement new ones.”

At the same time, IBM has a Global Work-Life Integration Council which meets regularly to review and discuss the company’s strategy and ensure it is meeting changing business and employee needs.

“To date, several employees have applied for sabbatical leave for personal reasons,” says Lim. “These employees are fully supported, with every effort being made to ensure that suitable work opportunities are found upon their return.”

Jacqueline Low, Chief Operating Officer, Hawksford Singapore, believes that having family-friendly initiatives will help employees to stay happy and committed at work: a win-win situation for the company.

Family-friendly initiatives employed at Hawksford include flexible working hours and minimal overtime so that staff can enjoy dinner and personal time with their family. Management and colleagues participate in employees’ important personal events, including weddings and baby showers.

Some employees work on a different structure of working hours due to family commitments.

“We are open to such arrangements as long as it doesn’t affect their performance and work-flow,” says Low.

“We are like a family and support one another, be it at work or on a personal-basis, as long as it’s within our means. Employees feel comfortable sharing their issues with us and this is the trust that we have built over time.

“Essentially, we practice ‘empathy’,” says Low. “Open-communication within the organisation allows all employees to share their personal issues.”

Even if some jobs don’t allow for family-friendly processes to be utilised, HR can still ensure employees strike a balance with work and home commitments, says Low.

Firstly, HR should have constant communication with employees, so both parties can understand each other. Next, HR should observe and monitor if any employee seems different or out-of-sorts. Lastly, having a balance between working and playing hard should be encouraged, so that employees can share about work with their families and also talk about their families at work.

With the help of its company-wide surveys, IBM has designed Work-Life Essentials – outlining all policies and activities with employees in mind. This information is readily available on the company intranet. All employees are also encouraged to have conversations with their managers should additional work-life flexibility be needed.

“It’s a matter for both parties to work together and have good communication so that all parties understand each other and the objectives that are being set,” Low explains.

Towards a family-centric work environment

When looking to implement a family-friendly work environment, it is prudent to note that work-life strategy is not a one-size-fits-all issue – a lot depends on the nature of business a company is in and its employee demographic.

“Our IBM employee population is diverse and so we need to cater to a diverse set of needs. Our different work-life programmes reflect that,” says Lim.

Teo agrees, saying that depending on the work requirements and nature of the business, companies need to look into customising an initiative that best fits them.

“For example, under our flexible work arrangement, some staff may work staggered hours while others may work from home once a week,” she explains. “The important message that everyone has to understand is to adopt an arrangement that suits them and not just compare with what others are doing.”

Another critical success factor is to promote a supportive work environment. “For example, it would be rare for a manager to ask, ‘where are you?’ as our performance measurement system is based on outcomes and results of work done; not on the amount of ‘face time’ in the office,” says Lim.

“It is our belief that IBMers are what make IBM,” says Lim. “With work-life integration, our employees are happier and more productive. Ultimately our clients benefit, our company benefits, and the individual benefits.”

Case study

IBM Singapore

For over 15 years, IBM Singapore has successfully rolled out an extensive range of work-life strategy offerings throughout the organisation, including:

  • Flexible working arrangements

With the approval of managers, employees may work a shorter work week with more hours in each day (10 hours a day for four days, instead of a five-day week, eight hours a day) and choose their daily start and end times.

  • Telecommuting

Close to 75% of the workforce is also mobile. This means that all employees have access to mobility tools and processes that allow them to work at a location convenient to them, any time.

  • Family Care Leave

On top of mandatory childcare leave entitlements, employees can apply for up to five days of Family Care Leave, regardless of their marital status. This is used when staff may need time off from work to attend to family matters.

  • Employee Engagement

Through the Employee Assistance Programme, IBM conducts regular lunchtime talks on various work-life topics such as “Getting a Good Night’s Sleep”, “Emotional Resilence” and “Positive Parenting”.

IBM also holds a variety of daily fitness classes on its premises, including Cardio Toning, Zumba, Kickboxing, and Yoga.

Employees are encouraged to bring their families along for IBM-organised activities such as movie screenings and community service events. This is aimed at strengthening family ties and encouraging colleagues to get to know one another better.

  • Childcare and Eldercare arrangements

IBMers also have access to Worklife Essentials. This is a global on-demand resource and referral website for employees to learn how to better manage their work and personal responsibilities.

  • Nursing rooms

To cater to nursing mothers, IBM has built lactation rooms onsite. These rooms are fully equipped with fridges, sinks, lockers, sterilisers, and private cubicles.


Case study

NTUC FairPrice

FairPrice was set up as a co-operative in 1973 with the social mission to moderate the cost of living. This was coupled with its commitment to give back to society in order to help build a better life for the community.

“We know that families are the building blocks of our society and we have in place various efforts to help families in need,” says Rebecca Teo, Director – HR, NTUC FairPrice. “Internally, as one of the largest employers in Singapore, we strive to create a ‘Wonderful Workplace’ that supports them.”

Some family-friendly initiatives at NTUC FairPrice include:

  • Ensuring the well-being and health of employees. “We invest to improve the well-being and health of our staff members. For example, we provide our full-time staff with comprehensive outpatient and inpatient medical benefits and also have in place a subsidised annual health screening for both full and part-time staff.”
  • Encouragement of family bonding and wellbeing. “We offer chalets at subsidised rates for our staff. Our staff also get two to three days of Family Charity Leave a year to celebrate auspicious occasions with their family or to do charity work outside of FairPrice. Staff are also entitled to two days’ parental care leave per year to take care of their parents.”
  • Providing flexible work arrangements. “For example, about 30% of our workforce are on part-time arrangements so that they can plan their work hours around family or personal commitments.”

FairPrice’s commitment to cultivate family-friendly practices has garnered recognition from industry peers and the wider community. In 2012, the supermarket chain was presented with the Singapore Health Award (Gold) for its efforts in promoting and executing health and wellness-related policies, benefits, and activities for staff. In the same year, FairPrice also won the prestigious Best Workplace Award at the International Singapore Compact CSR Summit.

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